[TimorLesteStudies] New ICG Report- Timor-Leste: No Time for Complacency

Bu Wilson Bu.Wilson at anu.edu.au
Tue Feb 10 08:05:17 EST 2009


Timor-Leste: No Time for Complacency

Asia Briefing N°87
9 February 2009


A year after the near-fatal shooting of President José Ramos-Horta, security
in Timor-Leste is strikingly improved. Armed rebels are no longer at large.
The atmosphere on the streets of Dili is far less tense. The government does
not seem to be facing any serious political threat to its survival. It has,
at least temporarily, been able to address several of the most pressing
security threats, in large part by buying off those it sees as potential
troublemakers. Nevertheless, the current period of calm is not cause for
complacency. Security sector reform is lagging, the justice system is weak,
the government shows signs of intolerance towards dissenting voices, and it
has not got a grip on corruption. These problems, which have been at the
root of the instability facing Timor-Leste since independence, must be
tackled if the country is to escape the cycle of conflict.

When President Ramos-Horta was shot in February 2008, many feared
Timor-Leste was falling back into violence. But the incident and its
aftermath strengthened the government. It removed the rebel Reinado from the
scene, while the government’s decisive response boosted popular confidence.
Subsequent progress on difficult issues, such as the group of former
soldiers known as the “petitioners” and the internally displaced persons
(IDPs), won it further political credit. The government coalition has
remained strong, while Fretilin initially found it hard to come to terms
with being in opposition. Although it is increasingly effective in that
important role – landing some punches on the government on issues such as
financial transparency – its threats to withdraw from parliament and
organise mass demonstrations against the legitimacy of the government
demonstrate weakness, not strength.

Substantial challenges remain. The government has taken few serious steps to
address the problems in the security sector which led to the 2006 crisis. It
seems uninterested in the comprehensive security review recommended by the
UN Security Council in August 2006. Responsibilities remain blurred between
the army and police. The “Joint Command” created to arrest the president’s
attackers bolstered the army’s ambitions to serve an internal security role.
That operation saw a stream of human rights abuses, stemming from
ill-discipline and a sense of being above the law. There are tensions
between the Timorese and the international security forces, with the
Timorese police increasingly resisting UN supervision. There are also signs
of worrying disdain for the justice system and civilian control over the
army. The police and army depend too heavily on a few individuals and on
personal relationships that have been able to hold the security forces

Presidential interventions in cases involving political violence have
undermined an already weak justice system. They send a signal that those
involved, especially the elite, will not be held to account, creating
resentment among the victims and failing to create a deterrent for the
future. Timor-Leste has seen too much impunity, and too many people have
evaded responsibility for their actions.

The government’s policy of “buying off” groups such as the petitioners and
IDPs has led to short term results, but carries risks. It has encouraged
other groups to demand “compensation” too. A danger is that Timor-Leste may
develop an entitlement culture where increasing numbers depend on, and
expect, state hand-outs.

The government has bought time and public confidence. It needs to use it to
address the underlying sources of tensions which led to the 2006 crisis.

Full Report

Bu Wilson
Regulatory  Institutions Network (RegNet) Research School of Pacific and
Asian Studies
College of Asia and the Pacific,
Australian National University 
Canberra   ACT   0200 

T: 02 6125 3194
F: 02 6125 1507
M: 0407 087 086
E: Bu.Wilson at anu.edu.au


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